According to recently published reports, the Obama administration is just now developing a formal set of standards and procedures for carrying out assassinations via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones.
Note: there are increasingly worrisome developments in the realm of fully automated weapons systems, also known as “killer robots,” which are now being identified and criticized. These issues add an entirely new dimension to concerns surrounding unmanned warfare.
This is especially surprising given that the United States’ drone assassination program has been in operation for quite a while now and has already led to at least one lawsuit against the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
It is also interesting that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder claimed earlier this year that their secret reviews of evidence count as due process, giving the impression that they had some kind of guidelines in place already. This impression was also given over a year ago with the realization of the secret death panels run by the National Security Council(NSC).
Yet apparently there have not been any formal guidelines in place this entire time, according to a report from The New York Times.
This would mean that Americans, including a 16-year-old boy, have been killed along with unknown numbers of civilians in countries like Yemen (where at least 29 people were killed in just 8 days earlier this year) and Pakistan (which has seen over 2,000 deaths since Obama took office) without any actual rules governing such actions.
To make matters even more insane, the Times reports, “Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.”
One might point out that with signature strikes, it is already being used as “a more flexible tool.”
It’s truly hard to tell what is really going on with the drone program since Obama lies when discussing it with the media and simply refuses to address the issue in a court of law.
According to Scott Shane, writing for The New York Times, “The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling ‘kill lists’ and approving strikes.”
However, it’s worth pointing out that the Times is essentially citing their own work as the impetus for the creation of this rulebook. Personally, I find such claims suspicious since news outlets seem to love giving themselves credit where none is due.
A statement from an anonymous Obama administration official seems to indicate that the motives were not at all related to the earlier report.
“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said the unnamed official cited by the Times.
The official added that Obama did not want to leave open the possibility of handing over an “amorphous” program to Romney.
Obama himself actually addressed the lack of a legal framework for the drone program in an interview on October 18 with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
“One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need Congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making,” Obama said.
Obama also addressed the issue when speaking to Mark Bowden for the book “The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.” Obama told Bowden that “creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge for me and my successors for some time to come.”
One could infer from that statement that there is indeed no legal structure, processes or oversight checks on how drones are currently used.
“There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,” Obama added.
The British Guardian cites Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Center for Democracy, a critic of the assassination program as well as the Times article itself which, according to Jaffer, relied on “self-serving sources.”
“To say they are rewriting the rulebook implies that there is already a rulebook,” Jaffer said. “But what they are already doing is rejecting a rulebook – of international law – that has been in place since [the second world war].”
“It is frustrating how we are reliant on self-serving leaks,” continued Jaffer. “We are left with interpreting shadows cast on the wall. The terms that are being used by these officials are undefined, malleable and without definition. It is impossible to know whether they are talking about something lawful or unlawful.”
“We are litigating for the release of legal memos,” said Jaffer, referring to the above-linked lawsuit. “We don’t think the public should have to reply [sic] on self-serving leaking by unnamed administrative officials.”
Jaffer also criticized the supposed debate within the government reported by the Times.
“The suggestion is that there is a significant debate going on within the administration about the scope of the government’s authority to carry out targeted killings,” said Jaffer. “I would question the significance of the debate. If imminent is defined as broadly as some say it is within the administration then the gap between the sides is narrow.”
“It matters how you define ‘imminent.’ The Bush administration was able to say it didn’t condone torture because of the definition of torture,” Jaffer continued. “You might think that if someone says, ‘I believe we should only use targeted killings only when there’s an imminent threat,’ you might think that sounds OK. But without terms like ‘imminent’ being defined it is impossible to evaluate the arguments.”
Indeed, it is nearly impossible to actually evaluate any of the arguments simply because the Obama administration refuses to actually outline the arguments in any unambiguous fashion, especially in a court of law.
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